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Learning In Chinese

Mandarin immersion takes root in Bay Area schools.



On a crisp December afternoon at Berkeley's Shu Ren International School, eleven squirming five-year-olds are sprawled out on the rug. Kai-Yao To's kindergarten classroom looks much like any nice kindergarten room — bright, cheerful colors; student art masterpieces in Crayola and felt-tip marker; and an easel where the day's itinerary is written on chart paper. What sets this classroom apart isn't especially subtle. Just about everything is written in Chinese, from the morning greeting that Kai Laoshi ("Teacher Kai") has written out for the students to read aloud together, to the labels underneath pictures of a dreidel and a menorah on the whiteboard. Even at the height of the holiday season, there probably aren't too many other kindergarten classes learning about Hanukkah and Kwanzaa in Mandarin.

Shu Ren, founded in the fall of 2008, is the latest in a growing number of Mandarin bilingual schools that have cropped up in the Bay Area. Here in the East Bay, these include the Pacific Rim International School, a Montessori-based independent school in Emeryville; Stonebrae Elementary School, part of the Hayward Unified School District; and Shu Ren, whose 41 students currently range from pre-K to second grade, although the school plans to expand by one grade each year until it runs through the eighth grade. Most of the programs follow some variation of the "dual language" immersion model, which at the elementary school level usually entails students spending at least 50 percent of their day not simply learning a second language, but rather learning in and completely immersed in that language.

In the East Bay, there's a well-established French immersion school and several Spanish-language immersion schools, and there is every indication that overall interest in foreign languages among Americans is higher than ever — no doubt a response to the increasingly globalized world in which we live. But the rising popularity of Mandarin immersion programs is particularly telling, in that much of the interest stems from China's ever-increasing economic clout and prominence on the world stage. Indeed, there has been a sense, for many years now, that China is the future, and this has caused parents — Chinese and non-Chinese alike — to plan for their children's education with an eye on the world's 1.3-billion some-odd Mandarin speakers.

Even the federal government has jumped on the bandwagon, providing resources to further the teaching and learning of Chinese — along with Arabic, Hindi, and other "strategically important" languages — through its so-called STARTALK programs, which are funded by the National Security Language Initiative.

Here in Berkeley, Stella Kwoh is the director the National Center for K-16 Chinese Language Pedagogy, which for more than a year now has been using STARTALK funds to create resources to train and support Chinese language teachers. When Kwoh first got involved in teacher training more than twenty years ago, Mandarin education wasn't especially popular in the United States — it was "in the freezer," she jokes. "But now," she said, "it's getter hotter and hotter."

While the administrators and others involved with Shu Ren acknowledge China's emergence as one of the school's major selling points, none are so crass as to place too much emphasis on the financial benefits of learning Mandarin — the idea, say, that there will be some quantifiable future payoff, measured out in Chinese yuan, for the $12,000-plus tuition parents are now paying each year. Instead, parents and teachers are much more likely to talk about the importance of multiculturalism or the cognitive benefits of learning about other people and other languages. The Chinese parents, in particular, talk about seeking ways to pass their cultural and linguistic heritage on to their own children.

In fact, Shu Ren's founder and head, Jie Moore, concedes that one of the reasons she decided to start a new school in the first place was because she was having trouble finding a suitable preschool for her own daughter, Maya, to attend. Moore grew up in China, but her husband is from New Zealand and doesn't speak Chinese at all. They agreed that they wanted their child to be bilingual but, unable to find a school in the area that offered as much of a Mandarin focus as she wanted, Moore ended up sending Maya to a regular Montessori preschool. Very quickly, Moore says, her daughter was basically no longer willing to speak Chinese.

Moore recalls, "One day I got really frustrated and I said, 'You should speak Chinese to me. Why do you always answer back in English?' And she said, 'Mommy, I don't know how!'"

For Moore, this served as a wake-up call with respect to the challenges inherent in trying to raise a bilingual child in the United States. "How could I expect her to speak Chinese when she never heard the words?" Moore said. "You know, during the day, all she hears is English. So that's when I said she has to be in an immersion school."

It was around this time that Moore started thinking about starting a school of her own, although she was no educator by her own admission. Her background was in sociology. She had never taught, and had no prior experience running a school.

But after receiving encouragement from Anne-Marie Pierce, an educational consultant who has worked with a Spanish immersion school in Oakland and a number of other international schools, Moore decided to give it a shot. In consultation with Pierce, Moore decided to base her school's curriculum on the International Baccalaureate model, in addition to the overarching Mandarin immersion framework.